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[CRASHING THE GATE]

by Brian Clarey

Tempus fugit, one grade at a time

He left this morning, right on time, with just the amount of pushback one would expect from a rapidly growing teenager whose blissful summer of slumber has been interrupted by the first day of school.

Eighth grade. I know — how in the hell did it come to this so quickly?

Wasn’t it just a couple of years ago that we scoured the Guilford County Schools system searching for the perfect learning environment to meet the educational needs of our firstborn, surely one of the brightest — if not the brightest — toddler ever to crap his pants? I brought him to take the entrance exam myself, passing him off to a teacher who led him down the hallway by the hand. It was the first thing, I think, that he ever did all by himself.

And though my own recollection tells it differently, it was indeed quite a long time ago — the first year of the second term of President George W. Bush, before Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. His sister was a wee babe in arms, his brother barely out of diapers. I’m pretty sure I still had hair.

From that day on, my wife and I have become increasingly embedded in the cycle: We herd them off to school in the mornings and gather them in the afternoon, trudge through meals and homework and get them to bed so we can get up and do it again, with breaks on weekends to clean and restock, and occasional extended vacations.

The years burn by quickly when you’re on the grind. By the time we had all three kids in school and rolling, we had damn near turned 40.

No one tells you how quickly the years pass between ages 20 and 40. One day you’re working some stoner job in a restaurant or sitting in a college dorm, and then bam! You’re changing a diaper. And then pow! You’re helping with math homework. And then, my friend, you’re 40. And that’s if you’re lucky.

But this column is not about the mercurial ways of time, as fertile a subject as that may be.

No, I’m thinking about school these days, especially since my oldest son is of an age that I remember all too well, sometimes excruciatingly so.

Is there anything more out of sorts than a young teenage boy?

No job, no money, no status, no car, still trying to get a handle on the hygiene required by this new, hormone-soaked body. Girls are a complete mystery. So are adults. And despite your obvious and rapid evolution away from childhood, a big part of you still wants to eat cereal and watch cartoons in your pajamas.

Maybe some people remember those years fondly. I’m not one of them.

The year I started eighth grade, while my childhood friends were growing longer, leaner, hairier, my own puberty had stalled out at the apogee of awkwardness. My body was still round with a layer of baby fat, and the eyeglasses I had been wearing for four years by that point were always crooked from being bashed, along with my face, by uncaught basketballs. I used a blow-dryer to part my hair in the middle, because it was 1983, and I’m pretty sure I carried a comb in my back pocket. I had braces, too, spiny, gunmetal spurs on every tooth that gave a slight lisp and attendant spray of saliva to my speech and shredded the insides of my cheeks. Sometimes I can still feel those bands gripping my molars in my dreams.

The genetic crapshoot has been more kind to my offspring, who all seem poised to cruise through their clumsiest years with much more poise than their old man.

It got better for me. It gets better for everybody. But it seems like it took me an awfully long time to get to the point where I could stand on my own.

And now, even though it seems like we’re just getting started, my wife and I figure we’re about halfway through our heavy childraising years. More, really — our youngest should start college right around the time we turn 50. And though I’ve heard that sending kids off to college does not necessarily take them of the family books.

I’ll worry about that when the time comes — which it always does, faster than I think it will.

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